She’s been called “the Indiana Jones of food,” “the Mick Jagger of Mexico,” and “the grand dame of Mexican cooking.” Observing the fervor with which chef Diana Kennedy barrels down the dirt roads of Michoacán in her white Nissan pickup truck, it’s not hard to see why the sprightly 95-year-old has earned such esteemed admirers, from the likes of Alice Waters, José Andrés, and Craig Claiborne. Kennedy’s no-nonsense attitude, passionate takes on everything from sex to sustainability, and encyclopedic knowledge of regional Mexican cuisine make her a perfect documentary subject. With director Elizabeth Carroll as skilled sous-chef, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” brings bold flavors together to serve a scrumptious delight of a film.
Borrowing its title from one of her nine classic cookbooks, “Nothing Fancy” presents Kennedy’s life at an engaging but thorough pace. Born in England in 1923, Kennedy moved to Mexico in 1957 after meeting her late husband, New York Times Latin America correspondent Paul Kennedy, during a military coup in Port-au-Prince. She quickly fell in love with her new home country, and began traveling to isolated areas to meet and observe local cooks in order to replicate regional dishes. Her first book, “Cuisines of Mexico,” was published in 1972, becoming a bestseller and remaining a seminal work on Mexican cooking to this day. What followed was international acclaim, television shows, two more bestsellers, James Beard awards, and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
More than accolades, however, Kennedy’s monk-like devotion to authentic regional cuisine stoked a worldwide voracious appetite for Mexican food. The next generation of Mexican and Latin American chefs are eternally grateful. Unfortunately, that’s a fact the film does not let one easily forget.
“Mexico as a country will be eternally indebted to her efforts,” says one gushing acolyte. Andrés is trotted out consistently to pay homage, even though he is Spanish — not Mexican. It’s hard not to wince when white American Alice Waters waxes poetic about what she’s done for the country. An indigenous woman gushes about Kennedy during a visually ripe scene filmed in the colorful kitchen of a Oaxacan eatery, ornamented by the intricately patterned tiles native to the region. The two women embrace each other tightly, recalling a decades-long friendship. There is genuine love here, but the woman singing Kennedy’s praises no doubt has Kennedy to thank for her restaurant becoming a bustling tourist destination.
The film takes a defensive position without explaining the underlying criticism, tripping over itself by backing into questions of appropriation and authenticity. Kennedy is one of the world’s foremost experts on regional Mexican cuisine, true — she is also a white British lady who has profited, financially and otherwise, from sharing this knowledge. It is, to be sure, a knowledge she gained through years of research, personal relationships, and respectful dedication. That’s a fascinating dichotomy that raises questions that couldn’t be more relevant in our hyper-globalized culture. The film does itself — and Kennedy — a disservice to ignore this tension. Let Kennedy bark an answer her critics — if anyone could could, it’s this surly 95-year-old who needs no assistance speaking her mind.
Still, the pleasures of the film outweigh its careful reservations, mostly because Kennedy is simply too much fun to observe in her natural habitat. Touring her lush garden, she lovingly coos: “This is my jewel box. These are my jewels,” as she cradles the overflowing greenery. She has a wide range of strongly-held beliefs on subjects that range from monocultures (bad), Mexico’s pepper imports (why?), and romantic partnership (“when you’re two people, your experience isn’t the same as one”). She preaches the gospel of sustainability as fervently as Greta Thunberg, modeling a spiritual connection to the land not unlike the gospel preached by indigenous cultures. “What are you going to do when I’m gone?” she shouts into the void. “Who is going to start screaming?”
Many will recognize Kennedy’s smiling visage from her cookbook covers. “Nothing Fancy” offers another image: That of the older woman in a flat-brim straw hat and pink head scarf at the wheel her trusty pickup truck, a look of focused determination on her face. “I wish my truck could recount some of the experiences it’s been through with me,” she muses. Thanks to this film, we know what it might say.
Greenwich Entertainment releases “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” nationwide via virtual cinema on Friday, May 22.